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Many animal and plant taxa reach their highest endemism and species richness in montane regions. The study of elevational range limits is central to understanding this widespread pattern and to predicting the responses of montane species to climate change. Yet, because large-scale manipulations of the distributions of most species are difficult, the causes of species’ elevational range limits (e.g. competitive interactions, physiological specialization) are poorly understood. Here, we harness the power of new mechanistic approaches to dissect the factors that underlie the elevational replacement of two salamander species in the Appalachian Highlands. Our results challenge the long-held idea that competitive interactions drive the lower elevational range limits of montane species and that physiological stress prevents low-elevation species from expanding to high elevations. We show that physiological constraints drive the lower elevational range limit of the montane-endemic species, Plethodon jordani. Conversely, we find that competition with P. jordani prevents the low-elevation species, P. teyahalee, from expanding its range to include higher-elevation habitats. These results are broadly consistent with the biogeography and behavior of other montane species, suggesting that similar mechanisms underlie patterns of elevational zonation across a variety of taxa and montane regions. To the extent that our findings are taxonomically and geographically widespread, these results challenge the idea that competitive release at species’ lower elevational range limits is driving the downslope range shifts exhibit by some montane taxa. Instead, our results raise the sobering possibility that even small changes in climate might cause erosion of the ranges of many high-elevation species.